November 22, 1886
“Rubbish!” was the second word Theodore Roosevelt said to me as I made myself as comfortable as I could in his hansom cab the following Monday, November 22. The first was ‘We11?” which we both understood was not an inquiry as to my health but as to how far I had proceeded in providing the world with the Lansingburgh saga that we had risked perhaps not life, but certainly limb a few days previous.
“I am sorry, Theodore,” I said, as I tried to get some of the water my hat had collected out in the rainstorm that painted New York an appropriate grey for today, the funeral of President Chester A. Arthur. “I have been busy with other things!”
I dripped an appropriate amount of water on the floor to show Roosevelt how long I had been standing in the rain waiting for his cab.
“You’re busy! My dear fellow, I am getting married in two weeks to the true love of my life, writing a history of Thomas Hart Benton, and running for Mayor of New York. Busy?”
I placed the hat back on my head.
“Well, Theodore, I do know that you only lost the Mayor’s race by 15000 votes, and that campaign ended two weeks ago if not well before. Mr. Benton’s life is one I am sure I shall find fascinating as soon as I find out who he is, and as for your upcoming nuptials, I fully understand, and you have my congratulations.”
“I’d rather have the manuscript. I would like to report directly to Steven about your progress.”
This immediately told me that I would not be meeting said Steven. So we drove on through the rain and gazed back at the mourners and curious on the streets as we made our way to the Church of Heavenly Rest on Fifth Avenue and 46th Street. A police and military cordon kept what crowds there were in the driving rain at a respectful distance from the wealthy and powerful, including President Grover Cleveland. We sat in our cab for twenty minutes or so while the well to do were ushered into the church, including President Chester Arthur’s immediate family (his wife having died in 1880) followed by the mammon of industry and then, and only then, would the representatives of the government enter.
Roosevelt leaned out the window of the cab door and reported the goings on.
“I believe that is Robert Lincoln entering now. How ironic. First his father, and then Garfield, and now Arthur so soon after leaving office. I think I will make note to not invite Mr. Lincoln anywhere near the Executive Mansion or myself. Ah, here comes the man.”
A swarthy man that could have done well in a stage production of Moby Dick as Queequeg if he had been heavily tattooed and scantily clad placed his face in the cab window. Since no one in their right mind would ever stage my novel as anything other than farce, I dismissed that notion and concentrated on his exemplar clothing and deep voice.
“Gentlemen, I bring you a greeting from a The Personage who would like a moment of your time before the ceremony.” His teeth appeared to be the same in girth and brightness as Theodore’s and I did wonder if the Roosevelt name was known among the blacks of this land.
Theodore merely gave me a “Don’t say a word in my presence” look and acknowledged the man’s message.
“Please tell Steven we will be along as soon as our carriage makes the turn.”
With that, the dapper messenger disappeared and was replaced by wind and more rain, dripping in on our carpet and already soak trousers.
Roosevelt returned to whatever vision of glory he saw amidst the droplets, while I just waited to get inside the church. There was at least a chance of warmth to be found in fellow mourners, and their fur coats.
As the carriage slowly lurched forward, Theodore finally averted his eyes from the vision to me.
“You have never met him?”
“Why, Steven, of course.”
“Not that I am aware of. But I understood we, that is, you were given a task by President Cleveland to make sure the now late President Arthur’s papers were not destroyed. For some reason you chose me as your accomplice…”
“Per Steven’s request, Herman. He has known of your involvement in this affair since his time as New York’s Governor, and he did request that I impose on our mild friendship to make sure the papers saved were the correct ones, and we saw as much there in your own handwriting. And when you complete get to the task, as I am sure you will very soon, I know you will explain the events of those days in a Bully manner.”
The carriage move forward and then quick stopped, much to the horses’ annoyance, and the driver’s pleasure for he was now much closer to a warm whiskey by a tavern’s fire. Closer than we would be. The door to the hansom opened and Roosevelt, of course stuck his head out into the rain to very polite applause. He raised his top hat and stepped down to the street, and I followed, greeted by people looking past me to the next carriage. In we strolled, Roosevelt saying hellos and shaking hands and soon we were inside the edifice, the exquisitely dry edifice. I remained unintroduced.
By the altar near the far apse was the coffin of Chester Alan Arthur, 21st President of these United States, and my supervisor, and occasional friend. His family presently resided in the first two rows of pews, Mrs. Arthur having died in 1880 just before Chester took office in 1881, so there were the President’s children and siblings only. Having seen some of the Arthur family in and out of the New York Port Authority during the 1870’s when I was employed at the amazing establishment, I was pleased to see them. And young Ellen, at her father’s side through these last few months, took a moment from greetings others to extend a hand to me. I actually looked to my left to see if Roosevelt was about to circumnavigate me to get to the late President’s daughter first. But Theodore had found a politician first.
“Mr. Melville, thank you for coming. Father always told me of your hard work at the Customs House, and your literary skill. He gave me some for Christmas when he lived in Washington, and I’d be down for visits.”
Her brown curly hair in ringlets on both sides of a face so much like her mother’s. At least Arthur had all his children by him. Old Friend, I miss you.
Before I had time to say a thank you, she excused herself. Another person to greet, no doubt. But Ellen Herndon Arthur turned at the last moment and with a mischievous smile asked the question.
“Did you get what you needed?”
I found that I had stepped directly diagonal of the Arthur family pew. The one son survived, I recalled and he nodded in my direction.
“Well, sir,” asked Chester Arthur III, the spitting image of his father, “did Mr. Smith assist you as he should have?”
Jimmy Smith was an old Customs House employee that had received a position there immediately following the founding of the city. President Arthur had asked Mr. Smith to burn the private and Presidential papers of the Administration and it was in this fashion that we, Roosevelt and I, had found him. Three large metal barrels and 50 years of history to burn. His eyes were black even in the deep twilight and with the fire roasting the Arthur, and part of the nation’s story. He had a look of the worse kind of hate, political hate. I could understand Chester Arthur telling his son not to enter politics. This is the result.
“Melville, come with me,” said Roosevelt as he bustled to my side, and grabbed my arm. But before I was turned away, I did whisper the word “yes” to the children, as if I did not wish to disturb their father’s eternal rest by commenting on mundane matters which might provoke a sudden and unnecessary resurrection
I must speak with them again, I told myself.
‘Well, right now you are going to speak to Steven.,” Roosevelt said and we moved and excused ourselves to the fourth row, seated behind the masters of history and business – Vanderbilt, Tiffany, Sheridan, others and of course Robert Lincoln. The present and previous administrations were well represented by cabinet officers and President Rutherford B. Hayes, who had made sure that Chester Arthur lost his job at the Customs House in 1878. I never knew if the man smiled ever, with that length of greybeard. His wife may not know.
The man seated in front of Mr. Hayes in the fourth pew rose to extend his hand and slightly smile. Roosevelt just beamed.
“Herman Melville, may I present Grover Cleveland, President of the United States.”
The massive hands from the massive arms crushed my right hand, and numbness sailed up to my shoulder. Once he saw the damage done, he lowered his body, much to the decrying of wood.
“My friends call me Steven,” said the basso voice hidden by a mustache. “Get that information to me as soon as possible. Oh, yes, I read your book. I thought it-“